Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 8, 2011

Capricornia (1937), by Xavier Herbert, read by Humphrey Bower

I first read Capricornia by Xavier Herbert (1901-1984)  more than 30 years ago when I was majoring in English and was astonished at the scope and daring of the story.  It’s a powerful exposé of race relations in Australia, delivered palatably in the form of a most engaging story.  When I saw it in Dymocks as an audio book and had a book voucher to spend, I didn’t hesitate, and I’ve been listening to it in the car on the way to work for weeks now, because it’s a long book, 23 hours listening time on 20 CDs.

Written early in the 1930s but not published till just before World War II, Capricornia is  mostly set in the interwar years,  depicting life in the Northern Territory through the story of successive generations of families both black and white.   It begins with the story of the Shillingsworth brothers, Mark (the tearaway) and Oscar(the respectable one).  Mark goes on to be a sometime father to Norman (Nawnim i.e. No Name) who – handicapped by his mixed race identity in a racist society – is raised as a white man but never treated as one outside his family.  (Not even within it sometimes, as when his cousin Marigold doesn’t want to have him attend her wedding).

The story ranges far and wide.  With dozens of characters and a canvas encompassing a sprawling outback territory subject to a capricious climate (The Wet and The Dry), Herbert plots with  unexplained murders, gruesome deaths, a shocking railway accident, countless fistfights and vociferous arguments, women being ‘lent out’ , abducted and molested and above all Norman’s confused quest for identity because he cannot reconcile his parentage.  He doesn’t want to acknowledge his ‘black half’ because as a ‘white feller’ he thinks he’s above it.

Herbert uses many racist terms and expressions that seem unforgivable today, but he was representing society as it was in those days, when people of mixed race were classified into halves and quarters and eighths according to what was known of their Aboriginal descent.  At that time the indigenous people of Australia were subject to the will and the whim of Aboriginal ‘Protectors’ (Herbert himself having worked as one at some time) and they were also denied many basic freedoms under the law.  More insidiously it was believed that they were ‘dying out’, and that it would be a good thing to ‘breed the colour out’.  These ideas underpin many of the actions that impinge on Herbert’s Aboriginal characters, (though they are not the only ones to be shown to suffer discrimination because the Chinese were also considered inferior).

It’s impossible to read this story and not feel outraged by the society depicted, and yet it’s an enjoyable story.  Herbert uses irony with great style, and on the rare occasions when his pen strays into polemics, it’s apt.  Australia needed a wake-up call, and it was still resonating in the middle 70s when I first read this novel – contemporaneous with the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and the Land Rights Movement.  The black comedy of the court cases that bring the story to its conclusion seem just as pertinent today, and the feistiness of the Aboriginal girl Tocky now seems prophetic when so many indigenous women are inspiring leaders in their communities and beyond.

The narration by Humphrey Bower is superb. I’d recommend this audio book to any reader anywhere, but especially to anyone making one of those outback pilgrimages across the long straight roads of the outback…

Update 1/3/17: I have just discovered a terrific resource about Xavier Herbert.  It’s called A Long and Winding Road, Xavier Herbert’s Literary Journey, and it was published by UWA Press in 2003.  The author, who is a Xavier Herbert scholar and enthusiast, is concerned about the neglect of this author, so has made the whole book available online in order to spread the word about Herbert’s achievement.  Click here to read the whole book, or just chapters about specific novels.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Xavier Herbert
Title: Capricornia
Publisher: Bolinda Audio Books 2009, first published 1937
ISBN: 9781742333199
Source: Personal Library, purchased from Dymocks  $49.95


  1. I really ought to read this book at some point. I can’t *do* audio books, because my mind wanders too much, although I could see that they would be very good to listen to in the car.


  2. *chuckle* Not a good idea on a bike either!


  3. Thanks for this, Lisa — I was not aware of this book. It does strike me from your review as one of those that suggests comparison with Canadian native and Metis experiences. I’ll look out for it.


    • It could be hard to find, Kevin. None of the usual overseas suppliers have it. Booktopia have it here in Oz:
      Or maybe Audible might have it?


  4. My problem with audio books is that I rarely last five minutes without falling asleep – unless driving of course!

    Few nations formed on the back of resident peoples have much to boast about. Even the Vikings did it to us, and then the Romans, and then the Normans. Heck, I may even be a Saxon for all I know. At least the raping and pillaging was not quite so bad in 19th century Australia as it was in Europe


    • Ah but, Tom, the difference was that by the 18th century (Oz was first settled in 1788) there was a well-established body of British law that meant that any new colony was subject to British law. Vikings, Romans and whatnot had no such legal constraints, but the Aborigines were from the very beginning subject to and supposed to be protected by the same law that operated in the home country. The Colonial Office was forever sending despatches to the Governor to bring the situation under control, and the full force of the law should have been used on anyone raping and pillaging.
      And whatever about the early period of settlement White Australia really can’t apply any arguments about frontier society in the interwar period of the 20th century. Part of what Herbert is on about in this book was that Territorians saw themselves as a frontier society and behaved like one, in the 1920s when the very idea of a frontier society was an anachronism everywhere else in the world.
      What happened was morally and legally wrong.


      • Lisa, your interpretation as usual for a generation or two removed from the past tries to assess the events using contemporary ethics, morays and views.
        Wrong, read and understand, don’t judge as your reference points are invalid.
        The facts ( and this is not a bad representation of the prevailing social attiudes to life as experienced) are the facts and no end of social engineering will alter that.
        Modern outrage at history is generally socialist inspired by ( may i say it, persons passing through their ” pink phase ” in life.)
        Age knowledge an experience will probably turn pink to blue.


        • Ah, Peter, I hope I’m always going to be outraged by racism…


  5. Oh bet this is good on audio, I’ve a new copy to read soon, all the best Stu


    • One of the best audio books I’ve had in a long time, Stu!


  6. […] The Montforts and Lucinda Brayford, Pageant. 9. Aborigines as a theme: Desert Saga, Coonardoo, Capricornia, The Timeless Land, Others. 10. Novels by younger writers. Avoidance of the present tense. Kylie […]


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